Tier 1 grant program spurs interdisciplinary research collaborations

Associate professor Thomas Vicino, left, and assistant professor Dieter Offenhuber pose for a portrait in East Village. They have teamed up for a Tier 1 interdisciplinary research grant project. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

How do non-violent urban communities of people build strong networks of social resilience in the face of violence and conflict? The answer cuts to the core of professors Thomas Vicino and Dietmar Offenhuber’s interdisciplinary research.

They’ve teamed up to examine one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, City of God, where they say residents have not only experienced concentrated violence but where social media platforms have become important spaces of social resilience. In addition to studying these social media networks, they’ve surveyed residents door-to-door—with the help of sociology doctoral candidate Anjuli Ferreira-Fahlberg to better understand the community’s conditions and resilience.

The goal is to develop a framework to measure community resilience that can be applied elsewhere around the world—something that Vicino said required an interdisciplinary approach. “In my own research, I look at the process of urbanization and the political economy of how cities grow and decline,” Vicino said. “Dietmar has expertise in urban planning, data analysis and visualization, and understanding how virtual networks form. He brought a methodological sophistication to this project. It’s been a great partnership.

“It really does take people from different fields to use a common research question and a broad set of methods to understand this social phenomenon.”

Next steps include presenting their project this month at conferences of the American Association of Geographers and the Latin American Studies Association, seeking further external funding to continue their work, and engaging with Northeastern’s newly launched Global Resilience Institute.

It really does take people from different fields to use a common research question and a broad set of methods to understand this social phenomenon.

Tom Vicino
Associate professor

Fostering interdisciplinary collaboration

Vicino and Offenhuber’s project is funded by Northeastern’s Tier 1 interdisciplinary research grant program. The program—which is supported by the university’s colleges and the provost’s office—awards one-year grants of up to $50,000 support and encourage individual faculty members to form multidisciplinary teams to secure proof of concept, with a goal of successfully competing for future sponsored research opportunities and develop new and innovative research directions.

In another ongoing Tier 1 project, researchers are examining projections of flood risk in rapidly growing coastal megacities—specifically using Jakarta, Indonesia, as a case study. “This is a fundamental issue confronting many cities in Asia,” said professor Gavin Shatkin, whose research focuses primarily on globalization and urban poverty in Southeast Asian cities. Jakarta has been called one of the most vulnerable cities in the world to flooding and potential inundation due to sea level rise by 2070. Devastating floods have struck in recent years.

Shatkin, however, notes the sinking of land, which is closely tied to urban sprawl and groundwater extraction, is a key factor in examining flood risk that hasn’t received as much attention as sea level rise. Among the team’s goals, he said, is to inform public policymaking in these vulnerable areas.

The team comprises Shatkin; Doreen Lee, associate professor of sociology and anthropology; Alessandra Renzi, assistant professor of media and screen studies; Auroop Ganguly, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Kian Goh, former professor of architecture at Northeastern; Kemal Taruc, visiting Fulbright scholar at Northeastern and a professor at Tarumanagara University in Indonesia; and doctoral student Mary Elizabeth Warner.

Their project is leading toward hosting a two-day workshop next month in Jakarta, where they will present their research and engage with Indonesian universities and community organizations to share knowledge and discuss future collaborations. The program will also include field visits focused on flood mitigation infrastructure, hazard management, and community-based resilience building.

The latest batch of Tier 1 grants

Since the program’s inception in FY2012, Tier 1 research teams have reported more than 230 publications and over $360 million in follow-on funding. Last month the FY2018 grants were announced: 21 interdisciplinary teams, comprising 57 total faculty members. “We look forward to great things from this year’s stellar roster of interdisciplinary awardees,” said Karen Drew, director of research development and strategic projects in the Office of Research Development.

One of the newest Tier 1 projects focuses on meeting the needs of the growing population of aging adults with chronic illnesses living in assisted service. In the team’s study, which will focus on elderly patients who are 65 years and older, researchers will seek to learn patients’ perspectives on their sense of agency, with the goal of designing a service system to make healthcare arrangements for people who need assisted home care. They say little is known about “assisted living” options for residential care of the elderly.

The project team brings together expertise in areas such as service experience design, self-care management, innovation and management, and system-level health services research. The faculty team includes Miso Kim, assistant professor in the Department of Art+Design, Valeria Ramdin, assistant clinical professor in the School of Nursing; Paul Fombelle, associate professor of marketing; and School of Nursing Dean Nancy Hanrahan. “This proposed study would be the first interdisciplinary collaboration of design, marketing, and nursing at Northeastern,” Kim said. “We hope that this study will benefit all departments as the collaborative effort that will initiate their long-term innovation plan, and contribute to the growth of Northeastern.”

Added Ramdin: “Illness, disease, and healthcare delivery have become more complex. This complexity demands that we innovate and collaborate across disciplines to mitigate the disease burden on individuals, families, communities, and our nation.”

Marketing professor Yakov Bart and computer science professor Christo Wilson are also leading a new Tier 1 project focusing on the sale and acquisition of consumer data. They say the combination of auctions and strategic partnerships between firms makes the online advertising space a highly complex, dynamic system that has been challenging to study. Their goal is to model and identify how advertisers, publishers, and intermediaries acquire and exchange consumer data. They will use an innovative technology that allows tracing information flows and identification of information-sharing relationships among companies.

“The idea of the project has stemmed from conversations about how new digital technologies have allowed firms to dramatically improve targeting efficiency with systematic acquisition and exchange of information about consumers,” Bart said.